“Two Kinds of Greatness”

(Mark 9:30-37 – Pentecost 18 – September 26, 2021)

Mark 9:30-37 – 30 Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. 31For He taught His disciples and said to them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” 32But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him. 33Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” 34But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. 35And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, 37“Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me.”

Dear fellow Redeemed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ:

Who is the greatest? In today’s text we hear of Jesus’ disciples disputing that very question among themselves. We are not told what criteria they used to compare themselves to one another, but I’m sure each had his own reasons for thinking he was the greatest.

If they could ask the question, why can’t we: “Who among us is the greatest?” How would we arrive at an answer; what criteria would we use? We could all take IQ tests to see who is the smartest. We could run races around the church to see who is the fastest. We could have an arm wrestling tournament to see who is the strongest. We could compare notes to see who is the most successful, the most attractive, etc. Maybe whoever came out on top in the most categories would get the trophy with the inscription: “I am the greatest!”

Of course, it would be a silly competition. As our text shows, there are “Two Kinds of Greatness”: 1) Greatness in the eyes of the world, and 2) Greatness in the eyes of God. Jesus’ words lead His disciples to stop and consider which kind of greatness really matters.

1) Greatness in the eyes of the world

In the eyes of the world, greatness is usually associated with things like power, honor, wealth, and success. For ourselves, even if we do not desire greatness per se in the eyes of the world, at least we want to live a life worthy of honor. Who would want to come to the end of life having been a failure, having come to nothing?

So Jesus’ disciples could not understand what He meant as He told them, at the height of His ministry: “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day” (vs. 31). Why would Jesus talk like this? If He were killed at the hands of men, it would seem that everything He had done the past few years, everything He had taught and stood for, would come to nothing. What about all His powerful miracles by which He had proven Himself to be the Messiah? What about the crowds that were beginning to follow Him, wanting Him to be their King? Death at the hands of His enemies would mean a dishonorable end, and the very opposite of greatness!

Jesus’ words seemed completely out of place in the disciples’ minds. They had visions of glory as His followers, not visions of a cross. That is why they so quickly changed the subject and went on to argue about their own greatness. They were living in a kind of denial, mentally blocking out Jesus’ words about His coming death. In fact it says: “they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him” (vs. 32). Jesus’ talk about His death was like the proverbial elephant in the room nobody wants to notice or talk about. Why? It might squash their hopes and dreams for worldly greatness!

In fact, they strongly opposed to Jesus’ talk about the cross. Look how they reacted the first time He told them about His coming death. Peter had taken Jesus aside and rebuked Him: “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But Jesus said to Peter: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:22-23). Through Peter, Satan was tempting Jesus to leave the path of the cross, the only path of winning our salvation. But Jesus knew He must die at the hands of men and rise on the third day; for that was the only way He could save us from perishing in our sins; that was the only way to win our forgiveness and bring us everlasting peace in His Kingdom.

Do we get caught up in dreams of greatness that have no place for Jesus’ death on the cross? Our sinful nature fears, and opposes, His death. Why? If our Lord Himself was despised and rejected by men, it means that we can expect similar treatment in the world as His followers. The cross Jesus asks us to take up as we follow Him goes against our ideas of worldly greatness. It rubs our pride the wrong way. If I am in quest to prove myself the smartest, strongest, or most successful, what place does Jesus’ humiliation and lowly death have in my visions of personal glory? If I am vying for that trophy with the inscription: “I am the greatest!” I am forgetting what a poor miserable sinner I am, that God’s Son should come to die for me.

Proverbs 16:18 warns that such pride goes before a fall. We remember how not long after this, just before Jesus was arrested and crucified, His disciples were still boasting in their own greatness and strength as His followers. We hear Peter claiming: “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble… Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” And we are told that all the disciples made the same boast (Matthew 26:33, 35). But we know what happened when Jesus was arrested. They all fled. That night before the rooster crowed, three times Peter would deny even knowing Jesus, as the Lord had predicted.

Do we ever find ourselves boasting in our greatness as Jesus’ disciples, if even in our heart? Have we ever looked down on others with that pride and contempt that says: “I can’t understand why those people are so unfaithful in following Jesus; at least I am always near to Him. I can’t understand why those people don’t do their part in serving Jesus; at least I’m putting my gifts to use in His Church. I can’t understand how those people have fallen so miserably and messed up their lives; at least I take Jesus’ Word to heart and apply it in my life.”

But then, like those first disciples, we know how it goes. Just when we are feeling the strongest and greatest, we fall. Just when we are feeling like such great witnesses of our Lord, we find ourselves ashamed to speak of Him among certain people, afraid to identify ourselves with the cross of Christ; because we know that in the eyes of the world, that would make us appear foolish and weak. Just when we are feeling the strongest against temptation, we fall into sin; and we find ourselves like Peter, weeping bitterly in humiliation and shame.

But Jesus had prepared him for this. Satan would sift Peter as wheat, but Jesus would forgive His fallen disciple and restore him. As Jesus had said: “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).

Dear disciples of Christ, here we begin to learn about true greatness in God’s eyes. For as we are bowed down in humiliation and shame, confessing ourselves to be miserable sinners, God lifts us up in the greatness of His mercy and forgiveness in Christ. Then, we are moved to turn and share His grace with each other; to lay aside selfish ambition and conceit, and esteem others better (Philippians 2:3). And like Peter, chastened and strengthened in faith by His Lord, we are here to strengthen and lift one another up in His love and mercy.

2) Greatness in the eyes of God

Jesus wanted His disciples to know such greatness in His Kingdom. So on this occasion, even after they had argued about who was the greatest, He patiently taught them saying: “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (vs. 35).

Isn’t Jesus the perfect example of becoming the last and servant of all? For though He is equal to His Father as the Son of God, He “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Though as King of heaven, He is greatest in the Kingdom, Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for us (Mark 10:44).

It is in Jesus’ humiliating death and victorious resurrection for us that we now have God’s full forgiveness of our sins. For Jesus’ sake, God forgives all our selfish pride, all our self-seeking vainglory. That was all taken away at the cross. In place of all that, God credits to us Jesus’ perfect life of humble obedience and Jesus’ God-glorifying servanthood.

So how do we become truly great in His Kingdom? The answer is found in the very thing Jesus’ disciples had been afraid to speak of – His death. For with Jesus, we have died to sin and we have been lifted up in the grace of God. Galatians 2:20 says: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Our proud sinful nature has been crucified with Jesus, drowned in baptism; and now through faith in Him, in the power of His resurrection, we have been raised up in newness of life (Romans 6:3-11).

By the grace of God, we have been lifted up and given eternal life in His Kingdom, as His own beloved children in Christ! What greater place is there for us to be? In the life we now live, by His Spirit in us, we are set free to love and serve Him, with humble and thankful hearts.

This is where true greatness is found. Often in this world, people are considered great when they have others serving them. It is not so in God’s Kingdom. Jesus has shown that in His Church, the reverse is true. The more humble a person is, willing to serve others in Christian love, the greater he is in God’s kingdom. Why? Because he reflects the humble love and servanthood of Him who is greatest of all – Jesus our Savior.

Now Jesus took a little child and said: “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me” (vs. 37). His words turn worldly ideas of greatness upside down. Whenever we simply teach children the truth of their Savior, we welcome them in Jesus’ name; and we also welcome Jesus Himself. Whenever we simply share Jesus’ love and build one another up in faith as the children of God, we welcome each one another in His name; and we also welcome Jesus Himself.

What a great thing it is to serve Him by serving one another! It is not important whether the things we do appear great in the eyes of the world. Deeds that are great in Jesus’ eyes are those that spring from faith in Him as our Savior. On the last day, when He invites us into His heavenly Kingdom, it will not be because our deeds were great in the world’s eyes, winning trophies for charity. It will be because our faith was in His saving work alone. And as fruits of this faith, even our simplest acts of love are a response to the great love He has first shown us And Jesus will testify: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:34-40).

Jesus has set us free from sin and death that we may live with Him forever as God’s children. Now by faith, we want to welcome Him in all aspects of our lives. We welcome Him by the way we share His love and truth with others in our daily callings at home, at church, at work, at school. And He says that as we welcome Him, we also welcome the Father who sent Him. What a great privilege it is to welcome our heavenly Father, through faith in His Son!

“Who among us is the greatest?” What a strange question indeed, in view of our Savior’s humble sacrifice for us! Jesus is the greatest! And whatever we do that reflects His self-sacrificing love and humble servanthood – that is truly great in His kingdom and in God’s eyes. What greater place is there than to follow Jesus with thankful hearts, serving each other in love! By this, we reflect a blessed Kingdom that awaits us in heaven, where the greatest of all will delight in serving His beloved, and we will delight in serving each other in love to His glory!

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be. Amen.